What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.

The Reader

While I like to write while surrounded by people, once my eyes are on the page, and once my fingers are working, a kind of wall goes up. Writing is solitary. And it is not.

The whole point of writing is for there to be a reader.

Every time I write, I am thinking of you. You could be sitting right behind me at this coffee shop in Gainesville, VA. Or at an internet cafe somewhere in Pakistan. You could be someone I have known for years. Or someone who has stumbled into my work on a whim.

When I write, I imagine myself as that “you.” I am the woman writing about transformation in her blog and that man who took a break from writing about horses and Johnny Cash. I am my daughter, who, perhaps, will look back at this years later when she decides she wants to know something more about her father. And I am you, unknown and unknowable, reading this now. And even you, who I have known, once—maybe for a few glorious months—are still unknown.

These days, I wear reading glasses when I write. The glasses give the letters on the screen crisper definition. When I look up though, the world is blurred. I cannot be focused on the there that is twelve feet away from me and the here that is a ranged configuration of black shapes. Letters. I think of all the alphabets and how arbitrary those shapes are—they stand from left to right or right to left. We see a sequence that shapes the way we read and understand the world as much as the simple shapes try to define that word. Why am I watching those random shapes when other human shapes drift in and out of my blurred vision?

Sometimes, I write for me—not to express my thoughts or feelings, but so that sometime later I can become my own reader. I will remember this person who sat in fairly comfortable, if strange, surroundings, among people who spoke my language and people who spoke other unfamiliar languages. I will remember those who sat with me while I wrote or those who slept in rooms nearby. The strange shapes that I decipher will point me to another time, another me. I will treat whatever is contained in these words as properly strange, belonging to someone who is not me, any more than you are not me.

Plate PlateThere is a plate at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC. Around the rim are an elongated set of letters in Arabic. Even if you knew what those letters meant, would you know about the person who wrote them before the platter was fired in a hundreds of years old kiln? Or what to make of the carved insignias on a Neolithic disc from China? Sometime, 5000 years from now, will these shapes still make sense? Will they point some future reader back to me? Or to anyone else who writes now?

I write to be in the moment. I love the process of getting lost in the words, in trying to connect thoughts and feelings to this electronic scrawl. I loved diving back into the world of the djinn day after day and discovering what he—and all the characters in that book—saw and heard and felt. Writing took me out and away from my self, and gave me a place to visit and revisit.

I  know all too well that the moment does not last. I write ensconced in both the past and the future. Everything I know—59 years of experience—and everything that will open before me—another 59 years?—balances on the self that writes here. Each time, the words bring me back to the self who wrote that fragment, and I keep returning to that self while I work on a particularly long piece of writing. But that self never remains static—returning requires an effort.

The self that writes is almost more like a mask—something and someone stopped in time. I write in and on that mask, but underneath, on my face, in my hands, and in my heart and mind dreams of change and something I have not imagined continue. Last night I dreamed that I was making dinner—a recipe I did not know with someone I did not know. My mind invents and travels and changes. I long to remove the mask, but I accept the part I play. For now.

There will be another mask, just as there will be another dream, just as today’s experiences will shape me. The mask-maker. The writer. The man. And you, also, always. Perhaps you will find your way to here from wherever you are, and you will find your way back to some unknown place. And write.

What is Enchantment?

At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding … are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart’s rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment.

Andre Breton

Enchantment only happens when one is uncertain—when one is drawn to the obscure. Otherwise, there is no spell. Affirmation shines a light on what we already knew. Or, at the very least, what we thought we knew. Enchantment takes us into the shadows.

Yes, some will call confirmation or affirmation by the name of “enchantment.” They mistake the feeling of returning home with walking, almost asleep, into the unknown.

The condition of enchantment requires that we are pulled out of our shoes toward something on which we will walk bare-footed, but cannot see. Will our feet be cut or burnt? Yes. Will the road be rough? Yes. Or will we float, unable to touch the ground, yearning for the familiar in spite of our flight? Yes. We will like the flight, but will not understand how we suddenly sprang out of our shoes. Who untied our laces? Am I still wearing socks? Do I have wings? Look down and behind yourself and be prepared for an answer you did not imagine.

Enchantment calls you out of yourself, possesses you, and makes the world new and strange. And in doing so, makes you new and strange to yourself.

Who would dare enchantment? Who would step out into the unknown, girded only with some semblance of a suddenly out of date idea of oneself? By slips and stumbles one finds something—or is found by something. Either way, because without a self to cling to—why hold fast to the raft when one might grow gills?—the world becomes the self. Enchantment makes me match the call of the world. Be all of this.

And so, I take the obscure way. Enchanted. It waits and welcomes me.

Writing is a fountain of youth

I was asked, “Do you feel old?” It was a question and an accusation.

I have reasons to be aware of my age. Over ten years ago, I had knee surgery as a result of years of overuse in swimming. My right shoulder has a tender rotator cuff; like my knees, my shoulder woes began when I was 17 and had a hitch in my freestyle stroke that put stress on the joint. Injuries never exactly go away as I am painfully reminded each time I lift weights with my hands out of a neutral position.

When I trim my beard, the hair falls from the electric razor like snow. The tide of my hairline has ebbed far enough to reveal another furrow on my brow. There are feathery lines that betray my transit. I do not always recognize the face that stares back at me, but I never truly recognized it. I have been surprising myself since before I can remember. Is that me? It is. It still is.

I know more than I did when I was 20, 30, or even 55. The accumulation of knowledge never stops. Each new day brings new articles of knowledge. I learn new ways of seeing the world or thinking about what I do. I gravitate toward books and lessons that show me something I did not know before I began. I am a specialist in my own ignorance. Every few years I feel a desire to overturn my life—uncomfortable in anything that feels like mastery, or rather, what might be mistaken for mastery. Yes, there is a value in going deep into a subject—in tunneling to the heart of a matter. But, to extend the metaphor, does the heart matter if one does not connect it to the bones and nerves and skin? What does the heart matter if it does not move out into the world and connect not just to the other 8 billion human hearts, but to everything living heart, and every other thing that does not have a heart? The more I learn, the more the connections pull at me.

I write—the single consistent strand of the past thirty-five years—because writing is not bound to any single subject. I write about movies, families, love, death, writing, baseball, anatomy, and art. I write about poems I love, and people who anger me to the point of distraction. I write about them to quell the dull ache of calcification and the even duller sense of disappointment with a world that replaces genuine surprise with momentary thrills. I write fiction and poetry to reach into the world and to describe a world that is thrilling—momentarily and for so much longer—but also deeply mysterious.

Writing is a time machine. It returns me to the giddy, carefree, and fearless time of youth. When I was ten, a flood brought the creek water a dozen feet higher than usual. The water rose above the bridge on the road below our house—a house on a hill. I went to the bridge and marveled at the swift brown water that reached the rails that spanned each side of the bridge. I waded into the water and held onto the rails. My feet lifted from the road and trailed behind me as I went hand over hand across the bridge. And once I crossed, I came back the same way.

Later in life, I did similar things, but the feeling then—water rushing past me, my feet straight out behind me, the weight of my body held by my extended arms—only fully returns when I write. And writing lets me shake off the years, not just mine, but all the years. I travel to any time I wish, unstuck from this moment, unlocked from expectation. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes about romping in the mind of God. Writing is like that. It can be. It must be.

Do I feel old? Positively. I am ancient because my writing carries me to that world—to every world. And I am young, still. Always.

Writing is like Dating

Recently, when I bemoaned re-entering the dating world—I don’t know what I am doing; it feels awkward; I’m not sure if I’m ready—a friend told me, “You have been dating. You’ve been dating your novel.” 

It seems strange to think about writing like a relationship. And yet, over the past year, my writing has been the single most reliable part of my life. For more than a year. My work has not stood me up once. It has waited patiently while I worked, or went on actual dates, such as they were. I wrote before so many dates, in the time I gave myself between here and some other there. I wrote in London. I wrote when I was supposed to be doing schoolwork. Sometimes the writing did not wait, and neither did I.

“Yes, but your writing isn’t going to satisfy you,” I can hear some churlish naysayer assert. Indeed. But, as I once tried to explain to someone who should have known better, when I write I feel rapturous, more connected to whatever one might consider ecstatically sexual, and more open to love than at any other time. I feel more able to love—and lust, the big lust—while I write. Writing is my way of loving the world. If anything, when I write, I feel less able to put up with the kind of trifling little lusts that casual dating provides. I am all but insufferable in my insistence on deep connection—match my intensity and magic or, please, don’t bother me.

That sounds terrible. It is.

Writing, done properly, is meant to engage absent readers; I write for them. However, I am also one of the readers—I write for me as well—not simply to write, but to read what I have written. I follow Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother, Buddy: “If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”

And, equally terrible, instead of waiting to find someone to love, let alone like, when I write, I get to be that person and get to love myself—and my writing!—without reservation or judgment. Have I ruined myself for anyone else? I don’t think so, but I’ve set a high bar. Not just for you, whoever you are, but for me. I have to love this writing and love generously and unfailingly. And shamelessly. I can. I will.

Hurt, Pain, and Agony (swimming and writing)

At the end of a day at work, I had a low grade fever on Monday, and so I had a choice to make—go home or go to the gym.

When I was in high school and college, I swam competitively. I was a good swimmer, not a great one, but I had made myself a better one and took pride in the effort. I enjoyed practice, in spite of the fact that practice hurt. The predominant swim coach of my youth was James “Doc” Counsilman. He prescribed—preached, really—the progression of hurt, pain, and agony as the single lane toward improvement. I gobbled up his Science of Swimming, and pushed myself into agony and better results. I never became an elite swimmer. I came to the sport too late and without the technical proficiency needed to excel beyond my willingness to work to the point of physical failure, but I did become a much better swimmer.

I hated to miss practice. I went when I had a fever. I went my my shoulders felt shredded. I went if I had the flu. I pushed my body hard enough to compromise my immune system, and plunged my body into a staph infection that ravaged me for a month. I kept at it.

I briefly considered quitting when I was in college. While Swarthmore was a place to be committed to study, most of the swimmers on the team joined to be fit, or to explore the sport. I was maniacal, and therefore, felt more often than not alone on the team. I missed the hard driven team of my high school. Also, I was not used to being out ahead of everyone else. This is not a boast, just the nature of the circumstance. There were other teams on which I would have not made the cut. I knew that.

I rejoined the team, refocused my effort, and pushed on.

So, I felt under the weather on a Monday. Let me put this into context. Nearly every day at my job, someone calls out sick; I have enough free time in my schedule that I am able to cover other people’s classes. I do not understand being sick and missing work. I know it happens—I have had migraines, back spasms, and bronchitis in the past fifteen years. I had knee surgery fifteen years ago (torn meniscus). I get it. Illness happens. I admit to being stupidly judgmental about this.

For many recent years, I worked seven day weeks. If I got sick, my body, as if on cue, waited until I had a break in the school year. And then, I somehow avoided being ill on Sunday; I worked for a church. It just happened that way. The little stuff—a headache, some intestinal discomfort, a low fever—was just part of the day. Buddha might have said that desire causes suffering, but it seemed to me that a small amount of suffering was simply part of life. Swimming had taught me that.

I claim that swimming taught me that lesson, but I am not so sure, because there were—are—aspects of my life that suffering has upended. While I could fight through a workout, or endure lengthy stretches of difficulty in a relationship or job (perhaps endure too willingly and for too long), when it came to my writing, I backed away from the agony. Agony for writers, I think, is a bit different from agony for swimmers. Muscle pain and, what? brain pain—I hesitate to call it heart pain—are different creatures. Physical pain ends—for most. Certainly the kind of agony I courted in the pool stayed mainly in the pool, at least until my knees needed surgery. Mental pain permeates the day—you can stop writing and still feel the agony of an unsuccessful scene—anything less than glowing prose. And when even the good writing does not find a reader, then the agony feels for naught.

Writing does not quantify the same way swimming does. More writing does not necessarily guarantee better writing (There is a correlation, but it’s more slippery) the way that more (more yards, more effort) swimming leads to faster times. Nor does it compare well with work, where improvement and accomplishment have monetary results. Does a higher salary indicate a job better done—or for that matter a more valuable job? I guess that depends on how you ascribe value.

Maybe because good writing—whatever that means—is dependent on the reader, if one seeks to write well, one either needs a fairly reliable ability to dissociate from the absolute creative process and read one’s own work as a stranger might, or have a reliable enough reader to sort through her—or his—work. But more than that, one has to engage the work almost without a thought for oneself. There is a second dissociation—and this is like swimming: one must be attuned to the pain and the pain cannot matter.

For instance—and this is an insight into my judgmental brain—I described a character whose skin turned browner while he worked for weeks and months outside as “brown as a berry.” This is an old cliche, and one that I first overheard in the British Virgin Islands while sitting at dinner. Some old man—I was 12 or 13, everyone was “old”—described me in his British accent as “brown as a berry.” I did not know then that it was a cliche, and the phrase stuck, because my experience of berries tended to berries of red and blue and possibly black—the blackberries that grew wild on bushes near my home. It felt foreign and I enjoyed that the phrase had some unexplained—for then—British origins. The phrase dropped into my work, and I knew it was hackneyed when I wrote it—a minor disaster, I suck as a writer—and when I revised, I took it out. I knew that I would. But I had to move on while I was writing, I could not spend five minutes, let alone twenty-five, figuring out some turn of phrase. In the end, I let it be simple: “his arms turned brown by the sun.”

Does that sound like agony? Sucking as a writer is agony. The realization that my work would not please everyone—and that I still had to do the work—was not easy to accept; secretly, I believe that the whole point of writing workshops is to learn to ignore critiques as much as to learn from them. How does one know when the work is “not good”? Or, for that matter, “good”? Rickie Nelson sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” (more hackneyed advice from my childhood). There is agony in those questions.

And so, on Monday, I headed to the gym. I shortened my workout, burning down 500 calories in 23 minutes. It was shorter, not less arduous. I was in various forms of discomfort through the first half of the week—my insides disagreed with something I ate. I kept at the gym anyway. And then—always and then—I read the first chapter of my novel out loud at an open reading on Friday, and sent off the first set of query letters to agents on Saturday. The book, for now, is done. I wrote this. And I started the next book.

I am prepared for the work, even if it hurts, even if I am in agony. I have trained for this all my life.

Resentment

There is always regret when one has not done not just what one has wanted to do, but has dreamed of all of their lives. “If only I had started sooner,” regret whispers. “If only I had not taken that job, moved to that city, loved that person.” Regret is a whispered siren’s song, and it can lead one toward a sadness that is disastrous to the work.

Regret has a companion emotion, and once one figures out exactly what one needs to do, this other emotion can assert itself in awful ways. This emotion is resentment. Anything—everything—that does not help us attain our vision—our purpose—can cause us to feel resentment. For instance: a job that takes our time—our necessary and limited time—even if that job is fulfilling and valuable. Even if that job pays the bills. Our family can cause feelings of resentment. This is a deep dark secret: the people we love can be the people who awaken resentment in us. Because they ask—as they are entitled—for our most precious resources: our imagination, our patience, our time; our essential necessary energy to do the work at hand. And this is terrible. No one wants to resent for their family or loved ones. And yet, we do.

Anything—everything—that takes away from the energy needed to do the creative work that gives our lives meaning cause resentment. One must learn to carve out sufficient time to be fully engaged and to spend the energy at the work required to fulfill one’s purpose. This is true in any circumstance—with or without family, with or without loved ones, and with or without other work. Once one sees what can be done, one must change one’s life to fulfill one’s purpose.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

However, resentment is not located in those other places. Neither my child, nor my job, nor anyone else in my life is the actual wellspring of resentment. It comes from me. Of course there are stupid little human annoyances—the woman who sliced into the left lane ahead of me on I-95 today, then just as abruptly, sliced back through traffic across two lanes to make a sudden right exit. The anger caused by such behaviors only lingers for so long. Resentment comes from an inward driven anger that sharpens regret and turns it back out to the world. The clearest targets are those who are nearest us.

Yes, there may be times when those close to us do ask us to stop our most purposeful work for reasons that are worthy of resentment. They may question your sense of self, and cast aspersions on your work and aspirations. Sometimes people cannot escape the deep-seated injuries and resulting resentments that their injuries caused, and they struggle, not with themselves, but with you. Just as you may struggle with resentment. Just as I have struggled. And one must escape that false judgment, and not validate it in any way. For the most part, we are the main manufacturers of our own grief. We stop ourselves. We foist anger on ourselves and take handfuls of earth and shower ourselves in dirt. We manifest an anger that eats us from within.

I am not suggesting that one should not be angry. Anger can be a source of energy, a goad to action when complacency or sadness or depression has settled too deeply on the creative mind. I let that anger into my work—allowing characters to taste it and spit it where it needs to land. So too with me, I learn, daily, the difference between anger caused by genuine external sources and that which has simply emanated from some ancient sun within me.

When I feel resentment, I check my sources first, and realize that, more likely than not, that I am not doing what I need to do. I am not tending my work and my purpose as I should. I have taken—for reasons at once honorable and misguided—someone else’s charge and anger as my own. I put it down, gently, if I can, and get back to work. The way forward—to fulfillment, to joy—is here.

Little miracles

I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. This seems at once perfectly natural—what else would I be doing? What else would a French artist paint (or an Italian, British, Russian, Afghan, or American)? And where else would a painting be? Of course, this seems only natural because it is what we have become accustomed to, since the time when Ennigaldi-Nanna opened the first museum.

If it is “only natural,” it is also a miracle. That Claude Monet painted? A miracle. That the Houses of Parliament were built along the Thames? A miracle. That the painting somehow came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC? A miracle. And that I am here, somehow, seeing this and writing about it? A miracle as well.

We take the commonplace for common, and lose the ability to be a little amazed at what is all around us, and the wild series of coincidences that brings the present moment into bloom. On the flip side, we excuse the awful as “could be worse,” instead of insisting on the more miraculous possibilities that could be. I stand amazed at what is, and demand more. Why not? Why fall back into what is easy, what masquerades as wit, what only keeps us from feeling that we have more to do?

I am looking at a painting made by a French artist of a British building that hangs in an American museum. The gauntlet has been thrown down. This is only the beginning.

Balance

About a year ago, I wrote about the patterns that I had noticed in my life. I have tended to trust the signs that the universe provides for me—much of what I have written about my current book project attests to that. I can admit that there are times that I have misinterpreted the signs, or that the universe has played an awful game of three card Monte with me. And yet, what other choice do I have?

I walk the line between an abundant trust in my muse—or the universe—and a willfulness that is singular and purposeful. This comes with risks. There is a song by Coldplay, in which the singer challenges, “Go on and tear me apart.” It is a brave dare, and echoes a bit of Emerson that was shared with me recently: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” What if all I get is torn apart and unsettled? I have lived too long under that flag to feel continued comfort in the “torn apart” life.

As I approach the end of this book, all the patterns (all right, most of the patterns—I am writing about a part of the world that eschews ideas of perfect resolution for a reason) come together. As the revision process takes hold, I rejigger, rip out, and rewrite scenes and conversations so that the whole points, gently and not too obviously (I hope) to the overarching pattern. The book is, finally, about patterns (Is it? Really?).

But life is not a book. Life does not (really) contain messages and patterns that point us toward happiness and success (Are you so sure about that?). Yes, there are patterns, but there are also many, many random occurrences and, perhaps even more challenging, patterns that unsettle us in ways that are distractions, that may even be injurious. At the moment, I simply cannot accept the notion that absolutely everything helps us grow and thrive. Some stuff, as my father pointed out on a particularly egregious day on the ocean, is just shitty. I throw shitty books across the room—the shitty life cannot be so easily flung into some other corner.

So, why feel hopeful? Because I am balancing between an awareness—too keenly felt this past several months—of the capriciousness and, well, shittiness of the universe, and the other more generous and affirming aspects of the exact same universe. Balance is not a passive activity. It may become seemingly involuntary, the way that holding your head—or a glass—level on a churning sea becomes second nature (your muscles are working all the time). I do not veer from happy to sad, celebratory to angry; they are all there, all the time, and for now, that is good enough. Of course, I seek—and will continue to seek—to tilt the balance to the more favorable side of things—and I am (Shut up, Doc!)—and that is because I feel that my purpose is to add to the balance of light.

Back to the tightrope.